Coronavirus (COVID-19)

In light of the current situation where working from home is a necessity, take this opportunity to develop your skills to be as prepared as possible once life does inevitably return to normal. We are delighted to announce a new suite of SLCC webinars designed to address issues related to Covid-19 as well as additional dates for existing webinars. Click here to view the full list of webinars.

Coronavirus Update 27th May

Going back to work

The government has relaxed the rules on working from 13th May for England. Clerks in Wales need to remain aware that the Welsh Government has only altered the rules on outdoor exercise and to a lesser extent than in England.

For the foreseeable future, workers should continue to work from home rather than their normal physical workplace, wherever possible. This is to minimise the number of social contacts across the country and therefore keep transmissions as low as possible.

For local councils, the majority of cases this will result in no changes in working practice at this time for the Clerk and other office staff.

All workers who cannot work from home should travel to work if their workplace is open. Sectors of the economy that are allowed to be open should be open, for example this includes food production, construction, manufacturing, logistics, distribution and scientific research in laboratories.

As soon as practicable, workplaces should follow the new “COVID-19 Secure” guidelines which will be published this week. These will ensure the risk of infection is as low as possible, while allowing as many people as possible to resume their livelihoods.

This does not currently include community and leisure centres which are expected to fall into Stage 3 of the Recovery Plan (at the earliest July).

This does however assist some clerks who manage outside staff as the guidance should support their decision making on how to create a safe working environment for these employees.

It remains the case that anyone who has symptoms, however mild, or is in a household where someone has symptoms, should not leave their house to go to work. Those people should self-isolate, as should those in their households.

Furlough Scheme

The scheme has been extended until October. The Chancellor in announcing this said that employers will be asked to “start sharing” the cost of the scheme from August.

The Chancellor also said that from August, the scheme would continue for all sectors and regions of the country but with greater flexibility to support the transition back to work. Employers currently using the scheme will then be able to bring furloughed employees back part-time. The details of this will be released at the end of May.

For the limited number of local councils who have furloughed staff, this provides some timescales to start workforce planning.

More information on the Scheme can be found on the SLCC COVID-19 Resources page.

Council Meetings

The advice around face to face council meetings remains unaltered. NALC’s view with which the SLCC agrees, is that it’s worth highlighting that councils should not be holding meetings in person and wherever possible staff should work from home. If a Council needs to meet, for example to approve the accounts and AGAR, then this should be done remotely.

Public spaces

It is believed that the risk of infection outside is significantly lower than inside, so the Government is updating the rules so that, as well as exercise, people can also now spend time outdoors subject to:

  • not meeting up with any more than one person from outside your household;
  • continued compliance with social distancing guidelines to remain two metres (6ft) away from people outside your household; good hand hygiene, particularly with respect to shared surfaces;
  • and those responsible for public places being able to put appropriate measures in place to follow the new COVID-19 secure guidance.

People may exercise outside as many times each day as they wish. For example, this would include angling and tennis.

People will still not be able to use areas like playgrounds, outdoor gyms or ticketed outdoor leisure venues, where there is a higher risk of close contact and touching surfaces. They can only exercise with up to one person from outside your household – this means they should not play team sports, except with members of their own household.

People may drive to outdoor open spaces irrespective of distance, so long as they respect social distancing guidance while they are there, because this does not involve contact with people outside your household.

When travelling to outdoor spaces, it is important that people respect the rules in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland and do not travel to different parts of the UK where it would be inconsistent with guidance or regulations issued by the relevant devolved administration.

Clerks on the borders with Wales and Scotland need to be aware that the rules are different in those devolved administrations. Clerks with open spaces will need to review the “COVID-19 Secure” guidelines when these are published later this week.

Face Coverings

If you can, wear a face covering in an enclosed space where social distancing isn’t possible and where you will come into contact with people you do not normally meet. This is most relevant for short periods indoors in crowded areas, for example, on public transport or in some shops.

Evidence suggests that wearing a face covering does not protect you. However, if you are infected but have not yet developed symptoms, it may provide some protection for others you come into close contact with.

Face coverings do not replace social distancing. If you have symptoms of COVID-19 (cough and/or high temperature), you and your household must isolate at home: wearing a face covering does not change this.

A face covering is not the same as the surgical masks or respirators used by healthcare and other workers as part of personal protective equipment. These should continue to be reserved for those who need them to protect against risks in their workplace, such as health and care workers, and those in industrial settings, like those exposed to dust hazards.

Face coverings should not be used by children under the age of 2 or those who may find it difficult to manage them correctly. For example, primary age children unassisted, or those with respiratory conditions.

It is important to use face coverings properly and wash your hands before putting them on and taking them off.

The Government is encouraging people to make their own face coverings. The key thing is it should cover the mouth and nose.

For those who can sew, the SLCC Head of Advisory & Support Services has been using a pattern which can be found here  which incorporates a nose wire to improve the fit on the face.

Coronavirus Testing

All local government employees, including those employed by local councils are eligible for testing if they have symptoms of the virus.

Click here to view Robert Jenrick’s letter regarding COVID-19 testing for council staff

Management of urban centres & green spaces in England

On 13th May the Government issued advice on management of urban centres and green spaces in England. The guidance is detailed and offers practical steps for clerks to consider using a decision tree.

Chapter 5 specifically deals with green spaces.

Emergency funding for local councils

On 28 April 2020, MHCLG released the figures relating to emergency funding for local councils. The SLCC is seeking clarification as to whether any of these funds will be cascaded through to town and parish councils and will update members with information as soon as it is available. Click here to access this information.

Planning Update

In response to the spread of Coronavirus (COVID-19), the Government has published an update on temporary and other measures aimed to make it easier to operate the planning system. These measures include the greater use of social media, delegated powers and representative groups.

Click here for further information.

This issue will be explored in more detail in the July edition of The Clerk magazine.

HMRC guidance on expenses and benefits provided to employees during coronavirus

HMRC have published guidance on the tax treatment of certain expenses and benefits provided to employees (including employees of local councils) during the current emergency. The guidance largely reflects existing law and practice but there are a few concessions. Click here to view the guidance. 

There is also guidance on the tax treatment of expenses reimbursed to employees who work from home. This again largely reflects existing law and practice. This guidance can be found here.

Councils given key role in tracking

The LocalGov website reports that the government is to hand over £300m to principal authorities in England to support track and trace work in order that any future outbreaks be managed locally. Under the plans, councils have been asked to submit detailed virus control plans by the end of June to demonstrate how they would manage a localised outbreak including infection prevention strategies and ensuring effective testing capacity. The work will be led by Local Resilience Forums and council appointed boards and data will be shared with the Joint Biosecurity Centre allowing a more detailed local response should a further lockdown become necessary. Health and Social Care secretary, Matt Hancock MP, said: ‘Test and trace will work at its best with central government working side by side with local authorities. ‘We will work with them to reduce the spread of coronavirus in their area, harnessing their local knowledge and mobilising boots on the ground.’

Click here to read the full article.

Latest Government Rules

The latest rules are just that rules – not guidance and can be enforced by the Police and fines may be issued to those not complying.

The government introduced on 23 March 2020 three measures.

  1. Requiring people to stay at home, except for very limited purposes
  2. Closing non-essential shops and community spaces
  3. Stopping all gatherings of more than two people in public

Every citizen must comply with these new measures. The relevant authorities, including the police, will be given the powers to enforce them – including through fines and dispersing gatherings.

1. Staying at home

You should only leave the house for one of four reasons:

  • Shopping for basic necessities, for example food and medicine, which must be as infrequent as possible.
  • Daily exercise, for example a run, walk, or cycle – alone or with members of your household. In England, you may from 13th May travel to a location to take exercise.
  • Any medical need, or to provide care or to help a vulnerable person.
  • Travelling to and from work, but only where this absolutely cannot be done from home.

These four reasons are exceptions – even when doing these activities, you should be minimising time spent outside of the home and ensuring you are 2 metres apart from anyone outside of your household.

These measures must be followed by everyone. Separate advice is available for individuals or households who are isolating, and for the most vulnerable who need to be shielded.

If you work in a critical sector outlined in the guidance, or your child has been identified as vulnerable, you can continue to take your children to school. Where parents do not live in the same household, children under 18 can be moved between their parents’ homes.

In most cases parish council staff are not considered to work in a critical sector – the exception being clerks who administer burials. Please see the new advice note on burials.

Leaving home for work is to be undertaken only if that work cannot be undertaken from home. Where possible people should try to avoid travelling in rush hour.

2. Closing non-essential shops and public spaces

Last week, the Government ordered certain businesses – including pubs, cinemas and theatres – to close. The Government is now extending this requirement to a further set of businesses and other venues, including:

  • all non-essential retail stores – this will include clothing and electronics stores; hair, beauty and nail salons; and outdoor and indoor markets, excluding food markets.
  • libraries, community centres, and youth centres.
  • indoor and outdoor leisure facilities such as bowling alleys, arcades and soft play facilities. communal places within parks, such as playgrounds, sports courts and outdoor gyms. From 13th May some open spaces are re-opened but play equipment and other areas where there is a higher risk of close contact and touching surfaces will remain closed.
  • places of worship, except for funerals attended by immediate families.
  • hotels, hostels, bed and breakfasts, campsites, caravan parks, and boarding houses for commercial/leisure use (excluding permanent residents and key workers).

More detailed information can be found here, including a full list of those businesses and other venues that must close. Businesses and other venues not on this list may remain open.

 

3. Stopping public gatherings

To make sure people are staying at home and apart from each other, the Government is also stopping all public gatherings of more than two people. There are only two exceptions to this rule:

  • where the gathering is of a group of people who live together – this means that a parent can, for example, take their children to the shops if there is no option to leave them at home.
  • where the gathering is essential for work purposes – but workers should be trying to minimise all meetings and other gatherings in the workplace.

In addition, the Government is stopping social events, including weddings, baptisms and other religious ceremonies. This will exclude funerals, which can be attended by immediate family. This definitely includes meetings of town, parish and community councils, their committees and working parties.

4. Delivering these measures

These measures will reduce our day to day contact with other people. They are a vital part of our efforts to reduce the rate of transmission of coronavirus.

Every citizen is instructed to comply with these new measures. The Government will therefore be ensuring the police and other relevant authorities have the powers to enforce them, including through fines and dispersing gatherings where people do not comply.

Schools & key workers

Schools and key workers with the closure of schools from Friday 20th March the Government has defined a list of key workers whose children will still be provided with a school place. For the most part town and parish council staff will not fall into the definition. The exception is those councils that are burial authorities as they are “managing the dead” – this is seen as a key public service.

The place for children may not be at their usual school and only one parent needs to be a “key worker” for the exemption to apply. The guidance is clear that children should be kept at home as much as possible and that use of the key worker provision should be a last resort.

Click here to read the guidance.

Holding Local Council Meetings

Long awaited regulations have now been introduced to enable town and parish councils to conduct ‘virtual meetings’.

The Local Authorities and Police and Crime Panels (Coronavirus) (Flexibility of Local Authority and Police and Crime Panel Meetings) (England and Wales) Regulations 2020 came into force on 4 April and will apply to local authority meetings and police and crime panel meetings that are required to be held, or held, before 7 May 2021.

The new legislation allows councils to carry out their business lawfully whilst ensuring that the health and safety of officers, councilors and members of the public is protected in accordance with government advice.

 

In response to the new regulations SLCC has launched free webinar training for members and non-members on how to hold council meetings by webinar.

The pre-recorded 60 minute session will be presented by Andrew Maliphant and is an invaluable resource in assisting clerks facilitate their first virtual meetings.

Click here to read the advice note.

Click here to access the free webinar training.

The LGA Hub also provides a range of resources which although aimed at principal authorities may be of interest.

FAQ's

How do I give notice of a virtual meeting?

Regulation 13 amends Section 1 of the Public Bodies (Admission to Meetings) Act 1960. The existing requirements of the public notice of the time and place of meetings is amended so that this obligation is met if notice is published on the website of the principal council within the meaning of the Local Government Act 1972. We suspect this is a drafting error and that the intention was for this to require posting on the parish council website – aside from the fact that it could be problematic to post notice of such a meeting on the principal council’s website, it of course makes sense for such postings to be on the parish council website. However, as the legislation currently stands, solely posting on the parish council website will not satisfy this requirement.

The position of the SLCC, and having discussed this with our colleagues at NALC, is that posting on the parish council website will suffice for the purpose of these Regulations. If you can additionally post notice of such meetings on the principal council website, then it is prudent to do so. It is further hoped that there will be an amendment in the near future to rectify this.

Additionally, there appears to be a further anomaly within the Regulations. As the 10(2) legal obligation in Part II of Schedule 12 of LGA 1972 has NOT been disapplied, this would suggest that the general requirements regarding the fixing of any notice of meetings three clear days before a meeting of the parish council ‘in some conspicuous place in the parish’ and the signature obligations will continue to apply. Again we have discussed the matter with our colleagues at NALC and the SLCC’s position is that a purposive and common sense approach to this will probably not be met with much criticism by the judiciary if circumstances dictate that due to health and safety matters etc this cannot be complied with to the letter. Once again we would welcome an amendment to the Regulations to reflect this, and again in the meantime if you are able to comply with the requirements of 10(2) and with minimum risk to health and safety then you may consider it prudent to do so in any event. Click here to view the ‘Virtual Meetings in England’ advice note.

Holding Meetings by Webinar – Free training

Following the regulations which enable town and parish councils to conduct ‘virtual meetings’, the SLCC has launched free webinar training for members and non-members on how to hold council meetings by webinar.

Click here to view the pre-recorded 60 minute session.

How can we take decisions?

Local authorities are required to hold meetings to make decisions. The Local Government Act 1972 requires members to be physically present in order for a meeting to take place. This applies to councils in all tiers. The exception to that rule is in Wales, where for principal authorities only remote attendance is allowed under the circumstances provided by section 4 of the Local Government (Wales) Measure 2011 provided there is a quorum of 30% physically present. This measure does not apply to community councils and may confuse dual hatted councillors.

Given that these times are indeed exceptional (and a declared pandemic should meet the test for this), most Councils will cancel their usual meetings and these need to be replaced with alternative decision making processes. The lawful way to do this is that a decision, that would otherwise have been on the agenda for a committee or Council, is now made by an officer. To ensure that this remains inclusive of elected members, the officer is advised in their decision-making seek the views of members of the committee/Council. This could be by email, SKYPE, telephone (not the best as there is no permanent record).

The officer cannot in law fetter (constrain) their discretion entirely, but that does not mean that they cannot give almost overwhelming weight to the views of members responding remotely to a report and officers’ advice, or even after seeing written submissions by members of the public in lieu of public access.

In some councils it may be desirable to formalise which members are to be consulted e.g Chairman & Vice Chairman. This does not in the SLCC’s view create a committee of 2 members and does not therefore need to meet. In political councils regard should be had to the existing protocols that the Council has established which may include the role of Leader and have reference to political proportionality.

Our colleagues at NALC have issued the following advice to councils with which SLCC completely agrees. “NALC strongly encourages councillors and staff to follow government guidance on social distancing and self-isolation. This is particularly important if anyone is in an at risk group as identified by the guidance. We would encourage councils to consider if they need to hold scheduled meetings at all. The health and safety of councillors, staff and the public should be your primary concern. If local councils do follow government guidance on social distancing and social isolation and so they do not hold scheduled meetings, including annual council meetings, NALC’s opinion is that the likelihood of a successful legal challenge is low. We are expecting government guidance on holding meetings remotely early next week, and NALC will also produce further guidance if appropriate next week. In the meantime, if local councils decide to not hold meetings and take decisions by email or other remote methods NALC feels it’s likely that afterwards if there were a challenge that the courts will accept that exceptional times called for exceptional measures. In the absence of government guidance we would suggest for now only taking decisions remotely for truly urgent issues. In this case councils should evidence their decision making as best they can, for example by asking councillors to confirm their votes by email to the Clerk for the Clerk to keep as a record of the decision.” Click here to view the dedicated NALC page

Annual Parish Meeting (England) & Community Meetings (Wales)

The Local Government Act 1972 Part III requires that an annual parish meeting takes place between 1st March and 1st June each year. There is no duty for the Parish Council to convene this although it is customary that it is convened by the Parish Council Chairman at a date and time set by the Parish Council. There is no effective sanction should the Parish Council not set a date and time for this to occur or if the Chairman does not convene the meeting.

In Wales there is no requirement for an annual community meeting however there is a procedure for electors to follow to demand one and this is set out in Local Government Act 1972, Schedule 12, para 30(1), as amended.

Click here to view the model pandemic plan (from the CIPD) which is available to SLCC members in the Advice Library (as the situation evolves the SLCC will update its advice.)

What about the Financial Year End?

Internal Audit

Clerks should look at the agreed internal audit plan and consider whether this can be delivered by post/email/filesharing and teleconferencing thus minimising any need for face to face meetings. In larger councils this may be more of an issue. However, in smaller councils with fewer transactions a face to face meeting with the internal auditor should not be necessary.

Approving the AGAR

Following lobbying by the National Association of Local Councils (NALC), supported by SLCC, amendments will be made to the Accounts and Audit Regulations. This applies to English parish councils. The regulations will move the statutory deadlines back by 2 months:

  • Accounts and AGAR to be approved and published by 31 August 2020 at the latest
  • Public rights period to commence on or before 1 September 2020.
  • Final audited accounts and external auditor report and certificate to be published by 30 November 2020

This will significantly alleviate the pressures on parish councils in producing their AGAR. SLCC encourages clerks to continue to progress their year-end accounts work as much as possible, realising that internal audit is impacted by the current restrictions and social distancing.

Changes to accounts and audit deadlines for 2020

The Government has published regulations extending accounts and audit deadlines in England for 2020. The Regulations do not apply to Wales although we expect separate regulations.

The period during which public rights of inspection may be exercised is now a period of 30 days commencing no later than Tuesday 1 September 2020. The rule that the period must include the first ten working days in July is disapplied. This in turn means that sections 1 and 2 of the unaudited AGAR must be approved and published on a freely accessible website, along with a notice advertising public rights, no later than Monday 31 August 2020. External auditors will provide templates as they have in previous years. Councils can of course approve and publish, and advertise public rights, at an earlier date.

There is no change to the procedure for approval and signature of sections 1 and 2 of the AGAR, so there must still be a Full Council meeting (which could perhaps be held remotely if the council has procedures in place for this and the regulations permitting this are still in force). There is no change to the rules where ‘under£25,000’ councils in England may declare themselves (again at a Full Council meeting) exempt from external audit.

There has been no change to the publication requirements and deadlines under the Transparency Code for Smaller Authorities (applying to councils in England where neither gross receipts nor gross payments for the year exceed £25,000). Councils should use their best endeavours to comply with the Code, if applicable, but the risk of challenge is low.

Click here to view the advice note on Coronavirus and Local Council Money

Wales Audit Office Update & FAQ’s

The Wales Audit Office (WAO) has released an update and frequently asked questions to keep members up to date with the latest information.

Current requirements of The Accounts and Audit (Wales) Regulations remain unchanged in regards to the approval of the accounts which must be at a meeting of the council and not delegated down to the Chair. It is expected that there will be delays in the completion of audits with the Wales Audit Office, BDO and Grant Thornton and local councils having to close their offices for the foreseeable future.

Click here to view the WAO FAQS (updated 30 April)

Where can I get advice?

The coronavirus situation is fast-moving and there is an increasing amount of misinformation online. Clerks should be using government advice to inform decisions and be checking these sites regularly. Unless otherwise stated all advice applies to both England & Wales. The SLCC continues to monitor the evolving situation and will update this advice as it changes. We are in regular communication with our colleagues at NALC and One Voice Wales. This is to ensure that advice to the sector is consistent and to support their lobbying efforts to remove some of the barriers we are currently facing.

  • Public Health England
  • Guidance from Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy assist employers and businesses in providing advice to their staff
  • There is advice from ACAS that is useful in considering any employment-related matters that may impact you and your staff.

Who is vulnerable?

This group includes those who are:

  • aged 70 or older (regardless of medical conditions)
  • under 70 with an underlying health condition listed below (ie anyone instructed to get a flu jab as an adult each year on medical grounds):
  • chronic (long-term) respiratory diseases, such as asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), emphysema or bronchitis
  • chronic heart disease, such as heart failure
  • chronic kidney disease
  • chronic liver disease, such as hepatitis
  • chronic neurological conditions, such as Parkinson’s disease, motor neurone disease, multiple sclerosis (MS), a learning disability or cerebral palsy
  • diabetes
  • problems with your spleen – for example, sickle cell disease or if you have had your spleen removed
  • a weakened immune system as the result of conditions such as HIV and AIDS, or medicines such as steroid tablets or chemotherapy
  • being seriously overweight (a BMI of 40 or above)
  • those who are pregnant